Set some time aside each day during Holy Week to read the Gospel reading for the day, remembering that in his word our Lord is truly present.
Make sure that you are comfortable. Perhaps light a candle. Make the sign of the cross † and remain still for a minute of settling silence. Then read the Gospel, preferably aloud and slowly, and pay attention to any words that stand out. If any do, meditate on them for a few minutes and be invited into a dialogue with God.
After spending a few minutes considering the Gospel, continue by reading Dom Henry Wansbrough’s reflection.
Conclude by asking God to bless you with one of the following spiritual gifts: love, understanding, wisdom, faithfulness, peace, self control, patience, or joy.
To read the relevant Gospel passage just click on the reference.
The readings for Palm Sunday are on our Sunday Readings Commentary page.
Please note that there is no reading for Holy Saturday as by tradition the Eucharist is not celebrated on this day.
Monday of Holy Week
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
This is the story of the anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly ointment at Bethany. In Mark and Matthew the woman is unnamed, but John names her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. John is more familiar with Jerusalem and its environs than are the Synoptics, and may have the family as his source.
Mary’s act of loving, personal affection and devotion is treasured. The evangelist’s comment that the scent filled the house shows a touching approval too. It will be remembered that Mary was the sister who stayed listening at Jesus’ side while Martha busied herself with practical details. This casts her as a figure of prayer and listening – perhaps a patron of lectio divina? Her sign of affection must have been valuable to Jesus as he rested at Bethany after the threatening controversies in the Temple. His response shows just how tense Jesus must have been. In the Gospel of Mark he responds that Mary’s loving tribute will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed. At this tense moment it makes Judas’ response seem unimaginative and brutal – no matter how practical it might have been on other occasions.
It is always a problem to decide how to apportion gifts, how much to the poor and how much in precious objects to enhance the liturgy and devotion in prayer. There were no gold chalices or silver candlesticks at the Last Supper, but these things are expressions of love and reverence, and also of appreciation of God’s gifts of natural and artistic beauty – even if they receive no mention in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
Tuesday of Holy Week
When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.
Rather than telling us the story of the Last Supper, the Gospels give us only two incidents at the Supper, the marking of the traitor and the Institution of the Eucharist. The latter is absent from John, who gave us the Bread of Life discourse, but reserves the sacraments till after the death of Jesus and the foundation of the Church. John identifies the traitor, but the synoptic Gospels stress not his identity by name but the treachery of his deed as one who dips his hand in the dish with Jesus and immediately betrays this gesture of fellowship.
The Church puts before us the failure of the disciples, led by Peter. Throughout Jesus’s ministry this has been a theme, especially in Mark. Three times the disciples are rebuked for their failure to understand who Jesus is, each time on the Lake of Galilee, before – immediately after the gift of sight to the blind man of Bethsaida – Peter bursts out with his profession of faith, ‘You are the Christ/Messiah’ (Mark 8.29). After this turning-point of the Gospel, again three times they fail to grasp the teaching on suffering, that as Messiah Jesus can accomplish his mission only by suffering and death, and that his disciples must share this suffering. The theme reaches its climax with Peter’s repeated protestation at the Supper that he is ready to die with Jesus, and his panicked denial when he is accosted by the diminutive servant-girl in the High Priest’s house. In John at any rate we hear the story of his repentance and response to the Risen Christ’s threefold challenge at the Lakeside. The prominence given to this theme is surely a reminder that the Twelve are role-models for future disciples even in their failure – and in their repentance. Did Jesus choose them badly, or are they merely forerunners of our own failures? Perfection is less important than repentance.
Wednesday of Holy Week
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.’ ” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover.
When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
This gospel commemorates the first part of the Last Supper, the preparation and the betrayal.
The strange pre-planned sequence of Jesus sending his disciples to encounter a seemingly random stranger in the city occurs both for Jesus’ solemn donkey-ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and for the preparation of a room for the Last Supper. These are evidence both of Jesus’ foreknowledge and of God’s own pre-planning: it was pre-destined that these events should take place as they did. The events of Jesus’ life, but especially those of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, were the culmination of God’s plan, expressed from ages earlier in the scriptures. The way this is shown is by relating even details of the happenings to the scriptures. So in the earliest tradition, quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5, Christ died and rose again, both ‘according to the scriptures’. A great deal of study must have gone into finding in the scriptures exact equivalences to such details! So the thirty pieces of silver paid for the betrayal of Jesus is in Exodus 21.32 the compensation to be paid for a slave gored by an ox. Similarly, when Judas commits suicide by hanging himself, he is imitating Ahithophel who counselled Absalom how to entrap David – advice which Absalom stupidly disregarded.
Why did Judas betray his Master? Countless conflicting character-studies have been built on the flimsiest of evidence. Was it simply for thirty pieces of silver, or is his greed a subsequent development? It is not mentioned by the synoptic Gospels. Was Judas a convinced nationalist fighter (his name is nationalist) who abandoned Jesus in frustration when he perceived that Jesus was not a political liberator who would expel the Romans?
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
The feast of the Passover was taken up by Jesus as the occasion for him to make his own new covenant, fulfilling the promises made by the prophets of a new covenant to replace the old covenant so definitively broken at the time of the Babylonian Exile. Jesus himself was the lamb who was to be sacrificed, and his new covenant was sealed, not in blood sprinkled but in his own blood consumed. It was a ‘memorial’, that is, an effective re-enactment, actually renewing the act of dedication and union.
Jesus’s extraordinary gesture recorded in the Gospel of John shows us the full meaning of what he was doing. The narrative stresses that Jesus knew what was to come; he was showing his disciples the meaning of the events. By the act of rising from the table and performing the demeaning act of stripping down and washing the feet of his followers, his guests, he was showing the meaning of the dire events to come – Peter’s horror says it all, but there was far worse to come. It was a pre-enactment of his great act of serving his community, the new family which he was binding to himself by this new covenant, the foundational act of service in the Church.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he; so, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfil the word which he had spoken, “Of those whom thou gavest me I lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?”
So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. First they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Caiaphas who had given counsel to the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in. The maid who kept the door said to Peter, “Are not you also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said to him, “Are not you also one of his disciples?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed.
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was early. They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” This was to fulfil the word which Jesus had spoken to show by what death he was to die.
Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple robe; they came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”
Upon this Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfil the scripture, “They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did this. But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.” And again another scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.”
After this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
John’s narrative of the Passion is different from that of the synoptic Gospels in important respects. Some of these differences are matters of emphasis, others spring from a set of different facts. After Caiaphas’s decision no Jewish trial scene before the high priest, no meeting of a Sanhedrin to prepare a charge to put before Pilate, was necessary. Instead John gives an interrogation before Annas, the ex-high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas. The trial before Pilate may well be built on the same incident as that of the synoptics, but in John it is highly elaborated for theological reasons.
The Johannine account is not the story of a condemned criminal being dragged to the disgraceful and tortured death reserved for slaves. Jesus is the majestic king, who proceeds royally to his triumph in death. There is no painful prayer for release in Gethsemane. From the beginning it is stressed that Jesus is fully aware of what is to happen. Before he can be arrested his captors repeatedly fall to the ground in an involuntary gesture of reverence at Jesus’s pronouncement of the divine name, “I am”. Jesus commands them to let his followers go, and is taken only when he gives the word (John 18:11). The humiliating elements of the other accounts, such as buffeting, spitting and the challenge to prophesy, have disappeared. Jesus is emphatically declared king in the three great world languages by the very man who condemns him to death (John 19:20-22). John even notes that the proclamation was publicly acknowledged by “many of the Jews”. not only is Jesus king; he continues his role as revealer and judge as well. In the interview with Annas it is Jesus who challenges and questions the high priest, reiterating his own teaching which he has given for all the world to hear. Similarly at the trial before Pilate, Jesus questions the governor and shows his control, until Pilate collapses with the feeble evasion, “What is truth?” – a humiliating self-condemnation in this gospel of truth. The judgement reaches its climax when the Jewish leaders, in a formal and balanced scene, condemn themselves before Jesus: he is enthroned on the judgement seat as judge and crowned – with thorns – as king, still wearing the royal purple robe of his mockery, while they deny the very existence of Judaism by declaring, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). If the God of Israel is not universal king, then Israel has no point or purpose.
The final scene has special significance. Jesus carries his own cross, unaided, and is enthroned on it – no agonising details of nailing and hoisting – between two attendants. There is no final psalm quotation of seeming despair (as in Mark and Matthew) or of resignation (as in Luke), no wordless “great cry” as Jesus expires. In John Jesus prepares the community of the future. In contrast to the other Gospels, Mary and the Beloved Disciple stand at the foot of the cross and are entrusted to each other’s care to constitute the first Christian community, the woman and the man, the mother and the ideal disciple. This is cemented by the gift of the Spirit, as Jesus – with typical Johannine ambiguity – “gave over his spirit”. Does this mean “breathed his last” or “gave them the Holy Spirit”? Only then does Jesus consent to die, with the words, “It is fulfilled”.